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South Mission Hills

First the guy was dead, and then he was not, a significant detail that changed during the telling of the story. But dead or alive, said my neighbor Matt, there was a body in the vacant lot by the crack house down the street. The police were already there. The trash-strewn lot was Matt’s dog’s toilet, hence the reason he was in the weeds at first light. Blame it on the dog. “The cops said it was like a gang thing or something,” Matt said, none too happy about his discovery. “They said the dude got stabbed, like, by a rival gang or some shit, and left to die.”

Reynard Way starts out as Goldfinch. It cuts down through a white clay canyon in South Mission Hills and eventually succumbs to the gravity of downtown and changes names again to State Street. Reynard Way is a speedway five days a week, a shortcut to the office or the airport or the freeway. Certain of the neighborhood’s walls may be owned by gangs — taggers remind us of this with spray paint — but the canyon belongs to the birds. The racket of sparrows, scrub jays, hawks, and crows outside my window can hold its own against the city noise. Once, when I was on the phone with my boss, the line went dead for a tick, and then she yelled, “Where the fuck are you? The San Diego Zoo?”

But the subculture of South Mission Hills is not all that obvious. Most of my neighbors are Hispanic. Central-Mexico Hispanic, as my Mexican-American friends are quick to point out. Somehow, they’ve gotten a toehold on Reynard Way, a cheap-rent zone below the luxe homes on the hill. For a few blocks, multiple families live crammed into single apartments. For rent money, they work car washes, stock drugstore shelves, hang Sheetrock, and wash dishes. A guy named Pedro sells them groceries out of his van. At night, they blast norteño music and drink beer and gather around the dead or dying carcasses of cars kept alive well past their prime with liberal use of Armor All.

We might as well be from different planets. Oblivious to white culture, my Hispanic apartment mates won’t even make eye contact unless I get things going first with my hatchet Spanish. “¿Qué pasa?” I say to my neighbor who is putting out her trash. I am wrestling my infant grandson into the car seat. “Este es mi, uh, ¿como se dice in español, uh, grandson?” I ask.

“Gran-son,” she mouths, tasting the word. “Abuelo.” She smiles. Abuelo is grandfather — that’s me.

“Sí — para esto” — I point to the baby — “el niño de, uh, de mi hija, ¿sí?” He is the little boy of my daughter, right? I think I say this.

“Sí,” she says, smiling a smile so huge the gold fillings are showing. “De su hijo. Sí.” She walks back up to her porch. Then she turns and says, with emphasis, “He beautiful. He berry beautiful.”

Yes, I say. The baby, he is beautiful.

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First the guy was dead, and then he was not, a significant detail that changed during the telling of the story. But dead or alive, said my neighbor Matt, there was a body in the vacant lot by the crack house down the street. The police were already there. The trash-strewn lot was Matt’s dog’s toilet, hence the reason he was in the weeds at first light. Blame it on the dog. “The cops said it was like a gang thing or something,” Matt said, none too happy about his discovery. “They said the dude got stabbed, like, by a rival gang or some shit, and left to die.”

Reynard Way starts out as Goldfinch. It cuts down through a white clay canyon in South Mission Hills and eventually succumbs to the gravity of downtown and changes names again to State Street. Reynard Way is a speedway five days a week, a shortcut to the office or the airport or the freeway. Certain of the neighborhood’s walls may be owned by gangs — taggers remind us of this with spray paint — but the canyon belongs to the birds. The racket of sparrows, scrub jays, hawks, and crows outside my window can hold its own against the city noise. Once, when I was on the phone with my boss, the line went dead for a tick, and then she yelled, “Where the fuck are you? The San Diego Zoo?”

But the subculture of South Mission Hills is not all that obvious. Most of my neighbors are Hispanic. Central-Mexico Hispanic, as my Mexican-American friends are quick to point out. Somehow, they’ve gotten a toehold on Reynard Way, a cheap-rent zone below the luxe homes on the hill. For a few blocks, multiple families live crammed into single apartments. For rent money, they work car washes, stock drugstore shelves, hang Sheetrock, and wash dishes. A guy named Pedro sells them groceries out of his van. At night, they blast norteño music and drink beer and gather around the dead or dying carcasses of cars kept alive well past their prime with liberal use of Armor All.

We might as well be from different planets. Oblivious to white culture, my Hispanic apartment mates won’t even make eye contact unless I get things going first with my hatchet Spanish. “¿Qué pasa?” I say to my neighbor who is putting out her trash. I am wrestling my infant grandson into the car seat. “Este es mi, uh, ¿como se dice in español, uh, grandson?” I ask.

“Gran-son,” she mouths, tasting the word. “Abuelo.” She smiles. Abuelo is grandfather — that’s me.

“Sí — para esto” — I point to the baby — “el niño de, uh, de mi hija, ¿sí?” He is the little boy of my daughter, right? I think I say this.

“Sí,” she says, smiling a smile so huge the gold fillings are showing. “De su hijo. Sí.” She walks back up to her porch. Then she turns and says, with emphasis, “He beautiful. He berry beautiful.”

Yes, I say. The baby, he is beautiful.

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